The tsunami of union organizing at Starbucks is one of the U.S. labor movement’s most high-profile successes in recent years. But now, another union is seemingly competing to represent some Starbucks workers in Wisconsin, which could derail what’s so far been a harmonious, store-by-store strategy led by workers organizing with Starbucks Workers United.
Since Starbucks workers in Buffalo became the first U.S. store to unionize in December, workers at more than 250 Starbucks stores across the country have filed to unionize. Of the elections that have been held so far, more than 50 stores in over a dozen states have voted to unionize–a remarkably high win rate of more than 80 percent, according to a tracker compiled by More Perfect Union.
The workers’ success against the coffee giant and its team of lawyers from the union-busting firm Littler Mendelson has surprised even longtime observers. “It’s actually shocking to me how badly they’re getting the shit kicked out of them,” Eric Fink, an associate professor at Elon University School of Law in North Carolina, told VICE News. “I think it’s because Littler is not used to dealing with this kind of thing and these kinds of workers.”
So far, all of the stores that have won union elections have organized with Starbucks Workers United, which touts more than 100,000 members and a history dating back over a century. But the Starbucks campaign has been remarkably grassroots: Spurred by the victory in Buffalo, workers have effectively mobilized with a bottom-up strategy of organizing.
“We had many internal meetings within our store talking about why we wanted to unionize,” Evan McKenzie, a 21-year-old barista at a store in Madison, Wisconsin, that went public with its effort to unionize in late March, told VICE News last week. “We reached out to Workers United, and we already had a pretty strong pro-union base before we even started talking to Workers United.”
Two stores in Wisconsin have already voted to unionize with Starbucks Workers United, including one in the village of Plover, on Wednesday.
In late April, however, the Milwaukee-based UFCW 1473, a local chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), announced it had filed for elections in three Starbucks stores in Dane County, Wisconsin—where McKenzie’s store had already filed for an election with Starbucks Workers United.
“We love Starbucks and we are organizing because we know that as union partners we can make things better at Starbucks,” Maki Davidson, a shift supervisor at one of three stores in and around Madison that filed for representation with UFCW, said in a statement provided by the union. A senior UFCW official also told VICE News that more stores may file for representation with them in the coming months.
Unlike Starbucks Workers United posts announcing new union drives, however, UFCW 1473 faced a flood of criticism and accusations of “raiding” Starbucks Workers United’s effort and “dividing” the movement to unionize Starbucks.
The senior UFCW official told VICE News that the union had helped Workers United organize before the filings. But in an email last week, Starbucks Workers United told VICE News that the UFCW’s effort “was not coordinated with the Starbucks Workers United movement and [we] were very surprised to see the filings.”
UFCW 1473, which had more than 11,600 members across Wisconsin and part of Michigan as of last year, has members who work at Starbucks cafes inside nine Kroger grocery stores in the state, UFCW 1473 president Jake Bailey told the Wisconsin Examiner last week. But such workers are employees of the grocery store, not Starbucks.
UFCW does have a history with Starbucks, however. In 1985, long before Starbucks became a multinational corporation with nearly $30 billion a year in revenue, about 120 employees in Seattle at a roasting plant and six stores unionized with UFCW 1001. But after Schultz—who wrote about his opposition to the union in his memoir—bought the company in 1986, the company took a more aggressive anti-union posture, and both unions were decertified by 1992.
Bailey also told the Examiner that UFCW 1473 had been organizing workers at the three Starbucks stores for about six months and that workers at the stores contacted UFCW, including some with family members who are UFCW members.
Starbucks Workers United successfully argued at the NLRB last year that voting units should be individual stores, rather than districts of several stores in the same area.
Workers at the same company going through separate election processes can be represented by different unions, Fink told VICE News. Workers at an Apple Store in Atlanta have filed for union representation with Communication Workers of America, for example, while workers at an Apple Store in Grand Central Station in New York have organized with Workers United.
“It really is up to the workers to decide what union they want,” Fink said. “There’s nothing that says all the employees of a nationwide company are supposed to be represented by the same union.”
Unionized Starbucks workers have said that—in the spirit of their store-by-store campaign—they want each store to bargain its own contract, but that they also want to create a framework for agreements across the country, HuffPost reported last month.
Despite this, the involvement of two or more unions doesn’t have to complicate the bargaining process, Fink said.
“There are other examples where multiple unions represent in the same industry where they tend to collaborate,” Fink said. “There’s nothing in the law to prevent them. It would just be a matter of, can the two unions get together and say, ‘we can collaborate.’”
Though there have been fewer high-profile intra-labor fights in recent years as the movement declined, turf wars have a long history in the labor movement. The AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, has had a clause in its constitution banning raids among its member unions like UFCW since 1992, but the SEIU—which the 100,000 member-strong Workers United is affiliated with—disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO in 2005.
Between 1997 and 2009, out of more than 30,000 elections for union representation, fewer than 1,500 have had multiple unions on the ballot, which is less than 5 percent, according to a 2010 Bureau of Labor Statistics report.
Still, Cathy Creighton, a former NLRB field attorney who now serves as the director of Cornell University's ILR School Buffalo Co-Lab, disputed that what UFCW is doing can be characterized as a raid.
“I don’t think that benefits anybody to say it’s raiding," Creighton said. “To me, it just seems like if any union wants to organize workers, then good for them… there’s lots of organizing to go around. Ninety-four percent of the private sector workforce can be unionized.”
In all three Wisconsin stores where the UFCW filed, the Chicago Midwest Regional Joint Board (CMRJB)—one of Workers United’s 13 locals in the U.S. and Canada—and the union’s lawyers are listed as “intervenors” in the union elections, or another union vying to represent the same workers.
But CMRJB communications director Carlos Ginard told VICE News that they’re only listed as such because the NLRB sent them an “informational letter” because the union might have an interest in the case. “We haven’t filed anything,” Ginard said.
The UFCW, for its part, has downplayed any potential conflict between the unions. In a statement to VICE News, UFCW international vice president Dave Young defended the union’s efforts as necessary to organize the coffee shop behemoth, which has been accused of union-busting and retaliating against vocal pro-union employees, including firing them. (Starbucks has repeatedly insisted that it has not retaliated against union organizers.)
“Organizing a company as large as Starbucks—with nearly 9,000 corporate-run locations across the country and a demonstrated history of anti-worker and union-busting behavior—is going to take the combined efforts of the entire labor movement,” Young said.
“An organizing victory in one place only serves to increase workers’ power everywhere, and we’re proud to be in this fight shoulder to shoulder alongside Starbucks Workers United.”
McKenzie, who previously worked at one of the Starbucks stores where workers are organizing with UFCW, said there’s been no coordination between Starbucks Workers United and UFCW workers in Madison so far. Still, workers at the Starbucks in Madison organizing with Starbucks Workers United expressed support for nearby stores.
“An organized workplace everywhere is what I want,” Lee Marfyak, a 27-year-old shift supervisor at the store in Madison organizing with Workers United, told VICE News last week.
Marfyak noted that Wisconsin union density is now below 8 percent. “I want that to be 90 percent or 100 percent. Any organized workplace is a victory,” Marfyak told VICE News.
“I hope it works for them, I hope it works out for us, and the more unionized stores, however it comes, the better. And there’s still solidarity there, even with different unions."
McKenzie echoed Marfyak, saying he and his co-workers “support any Starbucks that are unionizing in Wisconsin,” but he alluded to why his store chose Workers United over another union. “Workers United has been extremely helpful in allowing our store to work on its own issues, and understand why our store specifically wants a union,” McKenzie said.
“This is me speaking personally, but I feel like the more momentum that a union has, the better chances it has of creating better conditions for workers. And I think Workers United has the clear momentum and support of workers across the country right now.”
And unionizing workers may need all the help they can get: Starbucks has doubled down on its anti-union efforts after Starbucks Workers United’s successes. Earlier this week, Starbucks announced a benefits package which includes $15 an hour by Aug. 1 for all workers—except those who’ve unionized. The company has said it doesn’t have the “unilateral” authority to offer new benefits to unionized workers, which is true; labor law experts, however, say that nothing prohibits Starbucks from offering new benefits to workers.
Starbucks Workers United, alleging Schultz was intimidating workers, filed an unfair labor practice charge against the company, one of more than a hundred which have been filed against Starbucks at stores the country since last September. “That's not how labor law works and Starbucks knows it,” the union said in a tweet.
So far, Schultz’s return as interim CEO has not stopped the flood of organizing at Starbucks. The National Labor Relations Board sued Starbucks last month over claims of retaliation against workers in Phoenix, the union won landslide elections this week in Florida and Virginia, and on Thursday, workers at a store in Buffalo went on strike against Schultz and Starbucks’s refusal to extend its new benefits to unionized stores.
“Howard has accused partners of assaulting him with a union campaign,” the workers said in a statement. “The assault is the other way around.”
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